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My Beer Sold Out (Or When Small Beers Go Big Time)


Patrons gather outside the Steel Pail Growler Station in Eugene for the Goose Island migration week event.

Patrons gather outside the Steel Pail Growler Station in Eugene for the Goose Island migration week event.

Brian Bull/KLCC

A clear summer night finds a crowd at the steel pail growler station in Eugene. Chicago brewery Goose Island is here for its “migration week,” an event that lets people sample beer and meet staffers.

“[I’m] Patrick Reisch, and I’m the lead cellarman at Goose Island.”

Reisch has been with the company seven years. So he experienced Goose Island’s $39-million acquisition by Anheuser-Busch in 2011.

“I think we were probably one of the first if not the first of the craft breweries getting bought out and everything. A lot of people, they were upset at first, and then after the dust settled a bit, realized pretty much we’re just still gonna be making the same beer that we’d always been making.”

Goose Island’s situation is an increasingly familiar story to beer fans: small craft brewery draws fans, expands, and then gets scooped up by “Big Beer.”

Anheuser-Busch took over production of Goose Island’s large volume brands outside of Chicago. This includes Honkers Ale, 312, and IPA. The trick being taking a beer formerly made in 50-barrel batches, and ratcheting that up to 1,000 barrel batches.

Patron Alyssa Powell says both the acquisition and upscaling of Goose Island’s beers are working.

“I am drinking the IPA. … It’s great! I also think actually [the Anheuser-Busch acquisition is] kind of a positive because they get more access to different distributors, they can have more visibility in retail space, and just get their product out there to more customers and really expand.”

A few tables away, Tyler McNeil tackles a flight of Goose Island brews.

“I’ve enjoyed most of it. I mean some if it’s hit and miss, you’re not going to like everything. But as long as they’re keeping unique and doing their own thing … as long as the major label they signed with let them keep doing that, I don’t see a big problem with it at all.”

The Chicago Tribune recently rated six Goose Island beers mass-produced by Anheuser-Busch. It rated four as either “top tier” or “not bad.” The last two fell short of previous incarnations.

McNeil doesn’t knock Goose Island, but admits some bitterness at Seattle-based Elysian, which Anheuser-Busch acquired in January.

“Not only did the price go up, but the texture, taste … it just tastes normal. It wasn’t very unique. I like unique.”

Colby Phillips owns Eugene’s Tap and Growler, which boasts 45 beer taps, many local. He remembers the brouhaha when MillerCoors bought Eugene-based Hop Valley this year. Yet, Phillips says sometimes news of an indie brewer getting bought pleases patrons.

“There’s a few that comes in and feel like, ‘Hey, you know … if that’s what they were intending to do, then they were able to achieve their goals, and not usually a bad thing.”

Most, says Phillips, are neutral or indifferent.

“They’re like, ’I care but it’s not something that is first and foremost in my life right now. Even in my beer drinking life. Why, I’m just not going to buy 10 Barrel, I will buy this Oakshire beer that’s locally owned. And drink that, enjoy it.’ ”

And then there are the vocal few who vow never to buy that beer again. They say they won’t support any brewery under a corporate umbrella, that sacrifices small-batch artisanship for big-batch blandness.

A Hop Valley bartender pours a beer at their Eugene-based tap room and brewery.

A Hop Valley bartender pours a beer at their Eugene-based tap room and brewery.

Brian Bull/KLCC

At Hop Valley brewing, a bartender in tie-dye pours IPAs, while customers relax in booths and patio tables. Hop Valley co-founder Chuck Hare says their acquisition by MillerCoors wasn’t a ready decision.

“We were contacted by several other companies prior to conversations with MillerCoors. Immediately it was off the table, and that was something none of us were interested in doing it at all. As we began to move into other states and grow, we started to kinda realize, “Hey, this isn’t as easy as we think it is.’ Here in Oregon, the further you get away from home it’s difficult to sell beer, it’s very difficult to do distribution deals.”

Hare says it’s easier getting business calls returned since signing on with MillerCoor, and Hop Valley’s distribution, production, and credibility are all up. He says he’s just finished up contracts for hops through 2023, and his company is seeing some of their best sales to date, up nearly 30 percent from this time last year.

“People concerned about giving their money to a big brewery, I get it and I understand it. But I sometimes eat Lochmead ice cream and sometimes I eat Haagen-Dazs. I hope people do drink our beer. I want everybody to drink it. But there’s a ton of great beer not only here in Oregon, and not only here in the Northwest, but in the U.S.”

It’s also worth noting that Big Beer isn’t out to snatch up all microbreweries, either. Most acquisitions are geographically plotted to let big beer cast the widest regional net for drinkers; with national craft beer sales up nearly 13 percent, it’s a game corporate labels want to get in on.

The U.S. Justice Department has put regulations on Anheuser-Busch that’ll restrict further acquisitions after its $107-billion merger with SABMiller.

Not that other companies haven’t been busy. 

“Most of the large players in the U.S. beer market have made acquisitions,” said Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association.

Watson adds there are 4,656 small and independent craft breweries in the U.S.

Hop Valley co-founder Chuck Hare stands next to a company logo at their Eugene-based brewery. The company was recently acquired by MillerCoors.

Hop Valley co-founder Chuck Hare stands next to a company logo at their Eugene-based brewery. The company was recently acquired by MillerCoors.

Brian Bull/KLCC

So while media coverage of acquisitions has rattled the brewing world, “….the vast majority of small breweries remain independent,” he said. “So while we have seen a trend in acquisitions, it’s worth remembering that 99 percent of breweries have not been acquired, so there’s still probably lots of local independent breweries in your local market.”

And many indie breweries plan to stay that way. Eugene’s Ninkasi brewing company and Oakshire have pledged to remain locally owned, for example. Both turned 10 this year.

Still, it hurts many craft beer buffs to see their prized brew sell out. Even the piniest IPA may not take the edge off of that loss.

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